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Tony LaRussa, Super Genius

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To paraphrase Tony Kennedy, we sometimes must write blog posts we do not like. I normally use the title phrase pejoratively, and I’m not claiming to like or root for the Tea Partyin’ bullpen micromanager. But other people who don’t like him have taken the pundit’s fallacy route of claiming that he’s not really that good of a manager.

I’m sorry, but LaRussa is a great manager. The competition for greatest manager since 1980 comes down to LaRussa and Cox, and the former probably has the edge. In terms of the sabermetric evidence, LaRussa does phenomenally well, in a class with McCarthy and McGraw and Weaver. On the most important metric — whether players exceed or underperform expectations — he’s Top 5 all-time. He also does very well at the game management stuff people overrate — his lineup construction is brilliant, and given that his job is to win and not to entertain the platoon wankery also produces wins for his team.

One reason Jaffe’s book is the best new sabermetic work in a long time is that he understands that with managers qualitative analysis is important; one has to look carefully at the available talent and see if a manager seemed to get the most out of his team and made good talent judgments. In my mind, his record holds up exceptionally well under any inspection. His tenure with the White Sox is the least impressive, but even so he took over an awful team with one good young player and a hideous pitching staff and won 87 and 99 games in his second and third full seasons. The team had an off year in ’84, but it’s still an excellent record. Where he really made his reputation is with Oakland, where he took over another bad team and turned it into a great one by his second full season. Obviously, getting McGwire and Canseco was a major part of that, but as a talent base it’s not nearly as good as, say, the 90s Indians or Mariners; Canseco won’t go to the Hall of Fame and McGwire would be marginal even without the ire of drug warriors. (Remember that Rickey wasn’t part of the 104 win ’88 team.) His tenure with St. Louis has been equally impressive, with two 100-win seasons two more 95-win ones for a mid-market team that is almost always competitive. Sure, having Pujols helps a lot, but remember that this ain’t the NBA — the best player in both the AL (Bautista) and NL (Kemp) played on mediocre teams. (And LaRussa deserves credit for seeing what he had immediately; a lot of managers would not put any 21-year old who wasn’t a high draft pick in the lineup.)

But as with Cox, what makes LaRussa great is the pitching. LaRussa (and Duncan) have contributed a staggering number of runs to their teams by getting decent and sometimes outstanding numbers out of waiver-wire bait. Look at his 100-win As teams. Dave Stewart, the ace, basically got the crap beaten our of him for every other manager although he was pushing 30 by the time he came to Oakland. He turned a completely washed-up starter into the greatest closer between Sutter and Rivera, backed up by other excellent performances from relievers with modest credentials. He got two excellent years out of Mike Moore and adequate performances out of pretty much any replacement-level pickup. Same with St. Louis — almost every year he gets a strong performance out of a Kyle Loshe or Ryan Franklin or Todd Wellemeyer or Joel Pineiro or Jeff Suppan. When he acquired Chris Carpenter he had missed a year after two horrible seasons out of three; for St. Louis he’s been a legitimate ace.

The case against LaRussa generally comes down to postseason issues — see, eg., friend of the blog Charlie Pierce. And, yes, he’s been obliterated in three World Series, twice as prohibitive favorites. I’m not saying we should ignore that. But 1)I don’t think in most cases you can place a lot of weight on the postseason in evaluating baseball managers or players, and 2)surely his upset win in ’06 makes up for a lot of that. As does beating a 100-win Phillies team this year. LaRussa has his faults but he can manage my team anytime. If he had taken over for Dick Williams in 1981 I’d bet the Expos would still be in Montreal.

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